Dunging immortalised by his alphabets

ONE of many artefacts from Dunging in the author’s collection since 1964. In fact this shows a genealogical table from
Sengalang Burung, the Iban farming deity up to Dunging’s own generation. The author is a 26th generation descendant
of Sengalang Burung based on the same genealogical table.
THE author’s own adaptation of Dunging’s alphabets.
DUNGING anak Gunggu (1904-1985).
AN impression of Dunging by an artist friend of the author.

Many people called me at my personal number making further queries on Dunging Gunggu (1904-1985) subsequent to my last week’s column. As such I am compelled to write this ‘part two’ piece on him. “Tu ukai ulih aku belajar tang ulih nengkebang magang (These are not copied from others but are invented by me; all are my inventions).”

This was the first statement from Dunging when vending his ‘wares’ and holding court to a dozen or so people at a five-foot way in the wooden cowboy town of Saratok in 1968 that was my second encounter with the man who was then already known as an inventor of his own alphabet ‘Urup Dunging’.

Many would probably know that these 59 alphabets that are also known as ‘Urup Iban’ have been improvised by his grandson Assoc. Prof Dr Bromley Philip to become computer software Laser Iban For Windows launched in 2012 by then Senior Minister Tan Sri Dato Sri William Mawan Ikom, currently Saratok MP and Pakan Assemblyman. From a few sources, I came to learn some interesting items on Dunging. According to retired primary school headmaster Morris Unong, also from Nanga Ulai, Dunging’s birthplace, Dunging’s ‘bilik’ (apartment) of the longhouse was a few leagues ahead of his longhouse mates’ in terms of contents, designs and outlook.

“Both the outside and inside parts were made of belian, designed and decorated accordingly that it looked like a mini museum,” said Morris who added that at Dunging’s door was written in his own alphabets ‘Raja Menua Sarawak’ (King of Sarawak). As such during the funerary eulogy, on the eve of his burial in 1985, it was stated in Iban: “Bekejang meh Raja Menua Sarawak (So the King of Sarawak bids us farewell)”. Morris said Dunging had almost everything inside his apartment but none of his children or grandchildren stayed with him and his wife, offering no reason for this.

Though dead long time ago, people in Nanga Ulai and the few longhouses nearby as well as longhouse folks in Betong, Debak, Saratok, Roban as well Sarikei still remember Dunging as a strange, sometimes weird, genious and highly creative inventor, thanks especially to his ‘Urup Dunging’ and few other inventions stated earlier in my last week’s column and this one your are reading now.

Many of his ‘students’ at his Sera Gunting School – Morris Unong included – can still recall that Dunging was a good teacher, though at times a bit short-tempered. At one time his students, numbering around 120, took the classes in a group of 30 during alternate nights for free from Dunging. This could indicate that Dunging’s primary aim was to popularise his alphabets and not financially motivated.

My other source, Uncle Stephen Sembilan Ambas, my father Salok’s second cousin, who originates from Nanga Tut, just a few kilometres from Nanga Ulai, said Dunging was already known for a few skills in 1925 at the age of 21. By then he had demonstrated himself to be skillful in Iban traditional ‘ukir’ designs, making utensils such as plates and bowls from the ‘tapang’ hardwood as well as making various Iban traditional musical instruments from wood, bamboo, gourd and palm leaves.

One of his original creations was the ‘rebab’ musical instrument made out of used coconut shell cut into half. He also created a two-string (out of rattan) wooden ‘nyakun’ (out of the soft ‘empalaie’ wood), an Iban ‘sapek’ equivalent that he himself played for self entertainment. Uncle Stephen also said Dunging invented his own yarn spin for the purpose of spinning thread out of cotton or ‘kapuk’ that he planted aplenty.

A great number of women weavers around the Rimbas, Layar, Paku and Padeh basins which are Saribas tributaries and other areas made use of Dunging’s cotton yarn for their weaving activities during those days. Apart from these, Dunging also made hats from the light and easyto- handle ‘empalaie, wood and the ‘kerupuk palm’ whereby he would write using enamel paint on those items the word “Hat Mamboo Made Debak” eventhough these hats were not made from bamboo.

People didn’t bother much about his English for they were more concerned with the ‘feel good’ factor of wearing the wooden hats or ones out of the ‘kerupuk’ palm that were said to be quite durable and comfortable. At times Dunging was said to be experimenting with making hats, pants and jackets out the bark of ‘tekalung’ tree that he flattened by pounding. He made or tailored the items on himself and used the items to go around vending his ‘wares’.

Those who took interest in his ‘costume’ would place an order according to their own measurments. I remember when encountering him in Sarikei in 1982, he used an orange outfit made out of the tree bark, including the hat. In fact he looked resplendent in the outfit with matching orange ‘tekalung’ footwear, then possibly one and only pair of such kind in the world. Of course as stated in my last week article, one episode of hilarity was the one in 1930 during Gawai Antu at Nanga Ulai when his fan, without any speed control and manned by a cycling apparatus from a distance, blew guests’ traditional Iban headgears that resulted in a small havoc whenever they passed Dunging’s ‘ruai’ (open gallery).

One of his famous inventions was making perfume from a number of local flowers and plants, including wild orchids. These items were boiled together and then filtered for the liquid which he further processed to arrive at the product. Uncle Stephen said he enjoyed brisk sale but ran out of raw materials and abandoned the project.

Pertaining to his hundreds of acres of rubber plantations, Dunging made a great fortune so much so that he could afford to pay many people from his longhouse and Ulu Bayur longhouse to connect their longhouses with a bicycle trek over a distance of about four kilometres in the mid seventies.

His aim was to sell his bicycles made out of ‘semambu’ (a strong rotan plant) as spikes but there were few takers as most people found out that the ‘semambu’ spikes were too ‘bumpy’, unsafe and uncomfortable or rough for the road. So that led to another abandoned and failed project.

According to Uncle Stephen, apart from employing dozens of local longhouse folks to tap his rubber trees at the vicinity of his longhouse and along the Rimbas basin, Dunging spared his time to develop his interest in the rubber industry by inventing a wooden rubber mangle from a ‘tapang tree’, a species of hardwood found in Borneo that was easily available in the Iban hinterland, which became one of his many successful inventions.

He made a few including those for sale to people around the area. Apart from being cheaper as compared to the heavy iron mangle, his ‘tapang’ rubber mangle was lighter and easier to carry around. Many were also said to get these free from him, especially those under his employment at any one time. Dunging’s generosity was one of his many virtues, said Uncle Stephen.

His alphabets ‘Urup Dunging’, nevertheless, have become his most outstanding legacy as these have been made into computer fonts/software, thanks to his grandson Assoc. Prof. Dr Bromley Philip, a varsity don. I hereby close my chapter on Dunging and hopefully have fulfilled my wish to share with readers something about the legendary Iban inventor.

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